This weekend we began the observance of Advent. The Coming. I heard a lot of teaching and songs about getting ready, preparing ourselves. My mind wanders back to a cold December night in Oswego, NY. I scrape frost from the window and watch snow falling in the street light. A white Christmas must make it better, at least that what the songs says–dreaming of it. And sleighs can’t be jingling their bells that make everyone happy unless there is snow to slide on. But when I drop the curtain and return to wrapping gifts, I wonder what I can do. How do I prepare enough to make Christmas right? To keep us all safe?
We are one-less this Christmas, though his name is never spoken. Mac’s stocking is missing when we unpack the ornaments and decorations. My three-year-old brother, who drowned last summer, loved everyone. He always sang “Jesus Loves Me” while he played. He begged us to sit in the front pew in church so he could greet Jesus (and sing with gusto, though his hymnal was upside down and he was one syllable behind the choir). What did Mac do wrong?
In my ten-year-old mind, if we please God, then good things happen to us. So if bad things happen, we must be doing something wrong.
What did I do wrong?
And what can I do this Christmas to get the baby back in the manger?
It has taken many decades to purge my thoughts of the lies about being able to do it all right, and make it all right.
But it is easy to slide back into polish-yourself-up-and-get-presentable thinking.
When you hear, “Prepare the way,” do you go there, too, either by decorating beautifully, or baking up a storm, trying to create the magic that we wish is Christmas? Or buying the best gifts ever? Singing fantastic Christmas music, or decorating the church, or taking food to the poor? By being nice when you want to curse or helping someone you might usually ignore? Maybe you even read the Bible more or go to church when you don’t feel like it?
We have a million different ways to try to pave our way to the manger.
Or perhaps you shy from the light, feeling you don’t deserve to go in there, where candles flicker, and “Come, oh come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel…” drifts out the open door?
Maybe you are the one closest to the truth.
We don’t deserve to creep up the manger.
We don’t deserve a Redeemer.
We don’t deserve Abundant Life.
It’s all a gift.
Once again, I go to my favorite prophet, Isaiah, who calls to us from the very distant past.
Tonight, I’ll our Advent candle in peace, knowing I can’t, and don’t have to make myself, my home, my family, my writing — anything perfect for Christmas. I can give up trying to make everything right (again).
I don’t need to try to be the savior.
He came as an infant over 2,000 years ago, and made the way for us that we could never reach on our own.
Irma churned through the Caribbean and threatened eastern Florida, and I urged my son to bring his family to our house on the Gulf side of the state. The day I loaded up on perishable food to feed a crowd the “cone” suddenly switched westward, including us. For the next 36 hours, the cone crept west and my level of unease crept with it.
On Saturday morning we woke at 6:00 AM to a text from our son. Irma was expected to rebuild after skirting Cuba to at least a Cat 4, if not regain the Cat 5 intensity which destroyed so many Caribbean islands. And the center of the cone traveled up through the western part of Florida, right over my brother’s house, my house, my oldest daughter’s house a little north of us, and smack into my youngest daughter’s house in Tampa. Hers was the most exposed due to Tampa Bay and the predicted storm surge, so I urged her to evacuate. Midday, YD left for her brother’s house in Jupiter.
Not long after that, my oldest daughter decided their odds weren’t good, since they didn’t have hurricane shutters, so they took off for Jupiter as well. Once we had our hurricane shutters in place I felt fairly secure in our strangely dark house, but after urgent text messages from the kids, including my middle daughter in Switzerland who watched Irma with alarm from across the Atlantic, I studied the Weather Channel’s predictions. At that point, it looked like we would get 150 mph winds. I started packing.
It wasn’t easy, wondering what to take if everything was going to be destroyed, the dilemma played out by thousands as evacuees fled the monster storm. I chose a couple of pieces of my mother’s jewelry, put plastic bags on important files and albums, and said goodbye to everything.
That does something strange to your insides.
Since we’d decided to leave so late, by the time we turned south on the eastern side of Lake Okeechobee it was dark. We ran into the outer bands of Irma. My hip implant, which had stopped alerting me of frontal passages a few months back, stabbed me with a jolt of pain that wouldn’t let up. As I writhed in my seat, our Golden Retriever, Lily, panted behind me, obviously feeling the same pressure change that was torturing me.
Fortunately, when we arrived at my son’s house we found light rain. Everyone helped us unload quickly.
So there we were — four families and 2 very large dogs, boarded up and ready to ride out what wasn’t supposed to be much of a storm over there. Each family had one room, and we inflated air mattresses and made an attempt at sleep, trying to tuck our anxiety in for the night. When the power went out and the temperature rose, sleep became even more difficult, and dawn produced a lot of groggy adults trying to figure out breakfast with flashlights and the little battery-powered lanterns. (At least, we thought it was dawn since someone had a watch on.)
We strategized refrigerator openings, difficult since we’d all brought things and crammed them in, thinking we’d have time in the morning to organize. We cobbled meals, not simple with multiple food restrictions.
Another complication was my daughter-in-law’s allergy to dogs.
Along with power, we lost internet, then cell coverage for all of us on Verizon. One son-in-law had AT&T and was able to receive messages from MD, Tracey in Switzerland. She was the sole source of our information about the storm, apart from a wind-up radio that reported local events, like the danger of Lake Okeechobee overflowing its banks, causing extensive flooding.
We knew flooding would be an issue everywhere Irma went because we’d had an extremely wet summer and had yet to dry out from a tropical wave that swamped us when Harvey hit Houston and lingered in a similar fashion, flooding places that had never seen flood waters.
Throughout the day we played games and some of us jumped in the pool and cooled off before the storm became too intense. I had a fun game of Uno, starting with two grandkids and slowly dealing in the others.
And we tried not to think too much about what was happening across the state. Especially YD, whose husband was back home as a first responder.
The storm lasted longer than predicted on the East coast, still howling outside when it was time to put the little ones down for the night. YD had been upstairs with her youngest for a while, then they both came back down. He held up a book and she started singing the verses as he turned the pages. I joined in after a few verses, then one by one, everyone stood and joined hands. We sang, and repeated until we’d grasped it firmly, “He’s got the whole world, in his hands. He’s got the whole world, in his hands.…” As the wind howled and the rain pelted the shutters, peace settled over us.
Even in the midst of the storm, we remembered, he still has our whole world in his hands.
In the morning, calm greeted us, and bright sunshine outside. Even before the guys removed some of the hurricane shutters we opened the windows and let welcome air move through. My son and I made breakfast, cooking on a propane fire pit out next to the pool.
Some went for a walk and found cell coverage, along with reports from neighbors that our houses were okay. And power was coming back on at home. After an impromptu play by several of the grands, we started packing, ready to get home and to take the dogs away so my daughter-in-law could breathe freely.
Going home turned out to not be a simple matter. The first one out encountered a roadblock due to a downed power line on 70, so he detoured, to flooded roads, and detoured again, and again. He’d had enough gas to start but barely made it after all the detours. YD set out next, hoping she’d have better luck finding gas on highway 60. We had just enough to get home, but my husband and I waited for OD since she knew she didn’t have enough gas. We went through the gas station area of Jupiter, but no stations had power.
We stopped before we got to the Lake Okeechobee road to decide what to do. A sheriff pulled over and asked if we needed help, then a man in a pickup pulled in to talk to her. He ended up selling us his emergency supply, 5 gallons of gas. I thanked him and said he was an angel. He smiled and said, “I guess that’s why the Lord had me come out this morning.”
With the extra gas in my car, ready for detours, my husband went on with my granddaughter, who needed to get home and on the internet for college work, and their dog with ours, in case OD and I couldn’t find gas and had to return to my son’s house. It was another strange goodbye moment.
Thanks to GasBuddy, OD and I finally found gas to the south. The station had shut down due to a vapor lock and had opened up just before we joined the line, 30 cars back. We were able to buy $40 worth, cash since no machines or internet worked.
Meantime, YD hadn’t found gas and her warning light was on, out in the middle of nowhere with three kids. I called as she saw a sign for a dude ranch. In the middle of Florida! She went in, if nothing else for a safe place to spend the night until her husband was free to come and bring gas, if he could find it. She was blessed as well. After a couple of hours, and a bunch of tadpoles which delighted her boys, they had gas and were on their way, courtesy of the general manager who drove out with a generator and pumped gas for her. He wouldn’t even let her pay. (We plan to go there for a family reunion. I think it was River Ranch.)
My husband made it home on 70, but said he drove through 3 inches of water, and it was rising. We headed west, hoping we’d make it, with storm clouds on the horizon. Contrary to what we’d heard, the road north along the Lake wasn’t underwater, though everything next to it was. On 70, it was the same. To our right, the water in the former pasture was higher than the road.
In Arcadia, we saw the worst storm damage, a huge tree through a house which sat in the middle of a lake, aluminum siding and roofing wrapped around trees and fences, cattle standing in water, and water in places I’d never imagine it.
We were blessed to get through. When I checked after I got home, the flooded Peace River had covered the road. Every road into Arcadia was closed for days. Some opened today. If we hadn’t gone right then, we would have been wandering north, hoping for a way west before running out of gas, since there was none available.
Gratitude carried us home, and continues to follow me as I recall the track that Irma took that spared our homes, and what could have happened.
I’m grateful for all the first responders who left families and homes and went to work long hours to care for and protect us.
And I’m grateful for the caravans of utility workers who left their comfortable homes and are working long hours in terrible heat and humidity, sometimes waist deep in water (during alligator mating season, no less!)
We gathered to worship last night at Church of the Redeemer, on the bayfront, and would have been gone if Irma had behaved as predicted. I wasn’t the only one singing from deep in the heart. We were all glad to be alive, to have our homes, though some still lacked power, and to have a church to meet in.
The biggest blessing was a sermon by our youngest clergyman, Chris Wood. He talked about praising God no matter what, even in the storm. That might sound cliché, or easy to say, unless you know his story.
Chris drove away at 3:00 AM on Saturday morning with his young children asleep in the back, tears streaming down his face, not knowing if he would see his wife again. She stayed behind as a first responder. They were predicting total destruction at that time, and he wondered if he had what it took to care for his children without their mother. Can you imagine his drive to Georgia, and the hours that followed?
He said he prayed more than he ever had. (And that’s what he does for a living, so it was a lot!) And he encouraged us to PRAISE GOD ALL THE TIME.
(If you’d like to read his powerful sermon, go to http://www.redeemersarasota.org/news-and-media/sermons/ and click on the one from September 17, 2017. If the audio is available, definitely listen.)
I’ve given all the details partly because that’s what we’re all doing right now when we get together … telling our stories of amazing ways that God protected and blessed us.
And to encourage you, whether your storm comes from weather, relationships, health challenges, financial stress, even the shadow of death. We can praise God in the midst of it all, because he truly does hold the whole world in his hands.
He holds you and me, sister. He holds you and me, brother. He holds the whole world in his hands.
My mother loved to describe my learning to walk, out on the grass behind our house on Oxmead Road, in Burlington, NJ. We had a nanny goat named Minerva. I’d attempt to stand, in typical toddler fashion with my diaper-padded derriere rising first, thus providing an irresistible target for our well-horned goat. Before I could straighten and get my balance, she would come running and butt me flat on my face.
For some reason, this was hysterical to my parents as they watched from the porch. I never got why it was funny.
But it did explain how I learned to get back up, again.
And, obviously I did learn to walk (in spite of Minerva, who suddenly disappeared from our lives when she ate the sheets off the line, then went for mom’s roses).
I would have never walked if I’d stayed on my tummy, wailing into the grass.
We all get knocked down. Whether by cruelty, abuse, neglect, maliciousness, sickness, or a broken relationship, the death of a dream or a loved one, accidental injury or targeting by evil intent, we have all been sucker-punched at least once.
For most of us, way more than once.
So it isn’t about asking if we’ve been knocked down.
It’s about our determination to get back up, no matter how long or what it takes to get there.
(A note here about down time: YD gave me a wall plaque that I love. It reads:
Prayer: It’s hard to stumble when you’re on your knees.
A lot of wisdom there.)
I think much of our adult behavior is shaped by how we initially cope with face-plants. We form habits when we are too young to evaluate their effectiveness or cost to us, but we survive, so we figure it works.
We often continue responding the same way well into our adult lives, sabotaging our present circumstances.
It’s as if that take-down when we were one takes us down again at 14, 30, or 70, unless we are aware, and work to change our response.
Work is the operative word.
No habit goes without a fight. And I’m beginning to think emotional habits are the hardest of all to change. A knock-down can easily launch a temporary crippling pity party in me, and unmanageable frustration or rage in others.
My emotional journey would have started better if my mother had come off the porch, picked me up and comforted me, and restrained Minerva so I could learn to walk with nothing more than my own weakness or lack of coordination to trip me up.
She didn’t. (I know, now, she had her own take-downs that impeded her living and mothering, no matter how much she wanted to be a good mother. Forgiveness and healing have been huge here.)
There must have been more events like that, because I grew up thinking my feelings and pain didn’t matter, that speaking up wouldn’t bring assistance, and that I was helpless in the face of strength.
I’ve been knocked down a lot.
Like Minerva, the strong ones know a target when they see it.
But I have gotten back up.
When my precious little brother, Mac, drowned in Lake Oswego, through the love of my aunt and uncle in Philly, and the prayers and guidance of my grandmother in Ocean City, NJ, my aching heart came back to life in the hands of Jesus.
After we moved from Oswego, NY, I learned that my first boyfriend there had been killed, hit by a careless driver.
I cried all night.Then I got back up, again.
Every time the Navy moved us, every three or four years, just when I’d left my introverted corner and made friends, I was thrust into a new situation. I didn’t think I could survive.
But I did.
My list goes on, as yours probably does, too.
What matters is I discovered I am not, in fact, ever alone. I never have been, even in my mother’s womb.
The Spirit of the One who loves me perfectly gives me strength to rise when I think I cannot go on.
At my age, the struggles are less about other people and relationships and more about my body not putting up a good fight. I have spent much of the last 2 1/2 years working to heal.
I’m doing everything in my power to get back up,
and kick fear behind me, no matter what my body does.
To live fully
To love more
Always looking forward to an eternal life with no knock-downs!